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Will UK architecture ever stop wearing its learning on its sleeve?

editorial

The one depressing aspect of Duncan Lewis' buildings (pages 27-34) is that you can tell, at a glance, that they are not in the UK. It is not so much the blue hue of the skies or the dryness of the vegetation, as a certain scruffy casualness. This is architecture that doesn't wear its learning on its sleeve. For all its clever use of hydroponics, thermo-moulded plastic and elevated floorplates, it retains the thrown-together charm of the garden shed.

Take Lewis' social housing project in Valencia, which sits directly above an orange grove. The low-key execution suggests a straightforward diagrammatic response to the challenges of the site. The orange grove has specific requirements in terms of light and space. The housing is perfectly able to function seven metres up in the air. Simple.

British buildings may sit on stilts, but in a look-atme sort of way. The landscape - or cityscape - may be 'untouched', but it is also overwhelmed. Metaphorically, if not literally, it is consigned to the shadows.

Or take the school in Alsace, which presents its clever hydroponic panels as common-or-garden clumps of moss, worn with the effortlessness with which one might throw on an old scarf. Compare this to the sedum roofs that adorn British business parks, which appear to be worn somewhat self-consciously, like a newly purchased hat.

Why is it so unthinkable that Lewis, who is British, could exercise his peculiar brand of architecture at home? Is it that our quest to control and to quantify has rendered us incapable of appreciating an aesthetic that relates to transience or bricolage? We can only recognise quality by evidence of effort. And we can only sanction architecture on the basis of certainty and permanence.

How do you issue planning guidelines and design codes for a building that starts life as a structure clad in vines and that will one day be covered in fruit. Or for a structure whose metal-framed panelled facade will eventually be devoured by the vegetation it contains?

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